This Shabbat is the last of the “three Sabbaths of Rebuke” that occur before the observance of Tisha B’Av. Each of these Sabbaths contains a Haftarah (prophetic reading) that admonishes the Israelites for the sins, and this Haftarah is the most difficult of them all. As you read, remember that this is what Isaiah says about his own people-
“Ah sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! They have forsaken the Lord, turned their backs on God! Every head is ailing, every heart is sick, from head to foot..all bruises and welts, and festering sores… (Is.1:4-5)
The three Haftarot are followed by the grimmest day of all, the Ninth of Av, a day of fasting as we reflect on the destruction of our Temple and of Jerusalem, brought about, we say, because of our own sins.
The grim mood of this Shabbat’s Haftarah is suited to this very day, and these past weeks. This morning, we learned that a humanitarian ceasefire was broken by the enemy, as they engaged in a suicide bombing and attacks on soldiers, and at least one Israeli soldier has been taken captive. The death toll of Israelis is growing, and who with a human heart can fail to be moved by the sight of Gazan babies in the rubble, left unprotected and exploited by their Hamas master? Every head is ailing, and every heart is sick…
To be in Israel now is to live in a country that is subject to an indiscriminate, constant barrage of missiles, rockets, mortars and attacks, designed, make no mistake, to kill and maim innocents. The war that Israel is fighting is a war that goes to the very heart of Zionism-to live as a Jew in normalcy, in safety and security. But as Ari Shavit has reminded us, the Zionist experiment is inherently contradictory-because it is an attempt to create a western, peaceful democracy in a region which has known none of those things. I believed then, and believe now that this war is justified-that Israelis have to seek a way to live in security without the ever-present rain of missiles on their heads. Americans and the world are not getting a full appreciation of the agonizing fear and overwhelming anxiety and sorrow that is consuming Israelis these days.
But-as the prophet Isaiah reminds us this very Shabbat-there is no justice without self-examination and self-rebuke. Wash yourselves clean..learn to do good; devote yourself to justice, aid the wronged..(Is.. 16-17)
When this grim and agonizing war is over-and let it be soon- there needs to be an accounting of Israel’s political leadership. Prime Minister Netanyahu has done a largely admirable job in recent days, but there are many in Israel’s political class who has acted irresponsibly, trying to push the envelope to even greater war and violence, often for their own political gain. Netanyahu has not had to fight an implacable enemy, but members of his own cabinet who are working to undercut him and his authority. A series of dysfunctional governments have helped bring about many of the challenges, internal and external, that Israel is facing. Israeli citizens and soldiers deserve leaders who are worthy of their incredible sacrifice and love for their country.
Second, there is no honor in killing, only pain and sacrifice. The “body counts” so beloved of the media are a disgrace, and do not reflect the genuine grief felt in Israel over the death of innocents amongst the Palestinians. The majority of Israelis still yearn for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, even though most despair of it happening in their lifetime.
Even this grim Haftarah ends with a hopeful note-The Haftarah for this Shabbat concludes with these words: I will restore you as of old; and your advisors as of yore; after that you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City-and Zion shall be saved in justice.
May this come speedily, in our day.